Saturday, January 9, 2016

Who Murdered the Mystery?

There used to be something called mysteries.  These were stories printed in books (and, sometimes in newspapers or other periodicals) that presented a puzzle to the reader, who tried his very best to solve the puzzle before the protagonist of the story revealed the answer in the last chapter.  Originally called “detective puzzles”, this distinctly American art form was an invention of Edgar Allan Poe, and was perfected in England by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

We don’t do this anymore.  For some reason, today, the word, mystery means that you read a book where A kills B, then for 250 pages, you passively watch C figure out what you were told on page 10 of the book:  A did it.  Surprise!

There are a few variations on this formula.  The hero owns a bookstore or the heroine owns a cat that is so precocious and cute that, by the middle of the book, you yearn for a coyote to eat the damn feline!  And, for some reason, almost all of the current books are written by geriatric, matronly women who all seem to believe that they possess the talent to be the next Agatha Christie simply because they resemble Miss Marple.

What passes for mysteries on television are not even that sophisticated.  It doesn't matter which show you watch, the murderer is nearly always the highest paid guest star.

It is getting very hard to find an author who understands the genre.  Dashiell Hammett, Ellery Queen, Rex Stout, Dorothy Sayers, Raymond Chandler, John D. MacDonald….the ranks of authors who know how to write a good mystery are thinning out fast.  We should pray for the continued good health of Lawrence Block, because when he leaves us, I will be forced to read something like D is for Cup, or whatever the hell Sue Grafton calls her books.

My love of mystery books dates back to the Hardy Boys.  I think I devoured those books, abetted by the simple fact that my parents had learned that a $2 book would keep me out of mischief for a few days.  (This was the 1950's version of Ritalin.). Fenton W. Dixon was the house pseudonym the publisher used for the poor souls who were hired as ghostwriters to crank out the formulaic stories for the paltry sum of only $200 a book.  Even as a child, it didn't take me long to discover there were no real mysteries to decipher in these books, leading me to want something better than Frank and Joe Hardy.

It was Scholastic Press that brought me something better—much better.  Once a month, every student got a little flyer advertising the books of the month at a greatly reduced price.  One month, I selected The Thinking Machine by Jacques Futrelle.  I have no idea what attracted me to it, but I bought the book and was introduced to Professor Augustus S.F.X. Van Dusen, the Thinking Machine. 

I am embarrassed to admit, that I still have that book.  I have no idea how Scholastic—the same wonderful publishing company that recognized the genius of J. K. Rowling after so many other editors had rejected Harry Potter—managed to print a thirty-five cent paperback that has survived on my bookshelf for well over fifty years.  There is a two year-old textbook currently resting on my desk that, despite costing almost as much as my first car, is just barely held together by enough rubber bands to retread a Chevy.

Obviously inspired by Sherlock Holmes, Professor Van Dusen solved crime with logic and a keen mind.  In almost every story, he would say something along the lines of, "Every problem can be solved with logic alone.  Two and two does not equal four some of the time, but all of the time."  When told that finding a solution was impossible, the professor would invariably answer, “Nothing is impossible.”  These were heady words for a small boy living in the Texas countryside.

Perhaps the best of these stories is The Problem of Cell 13.  Professor Van Dusen, in order to prove the mind is capable of solving any problem, wagers that he can escape from a death row prison cell in one week.  If this were the only story Futrelle had written, he would still qualify as a great mystery writer.  Luckily for you, it is not necessary for you to hunt down an aging paperback to read this story (though, happily, all of the Thinking Machine stories are still in print) because the entire story is available for you to read, for free, by simply clicking on this link.

Futrelle's stories, set at the dawn of the Twentieth Century, featured the newest of technology—electric arc lights, the telegraph, and the telephone.  The professor specialized in figuring out what today is called the "locked room" mystery: usually a murdered victim was found locked inside a room from which there was no possible way for the murderer to have escaped.  Using logic, Professor Van Dusen always discovered the answer, and though all the clues were clearly presented to the reader, I was always baffled. 

Unfortunately, there are only a few dozen of these stories available, for Jacques Futrelle did not live long enough to enjoy the fame his mysteries were already starting to bring him.  At the time the first of his detective stories were serialized, Futrelle was writing for the Boston American, a Hearst newspaper.  Futrelle quit his job and began writing full time and his first book of stories was soon published.  Newly famous and with a hefty advance on his next book in the bank, Futrelle took his wife to Europe to finish his manuscripts and to meet European publishers.  Unfortunately, he and his wife decided to return to America on the maiden voyage of the R.M.S. Titanic.

Early on the morning of April 15, 1912, Futrelle helped his wife, May, board lifeboat #16 as the ship foundered.  As the lifeboat slowly lowered, May’s last sight of her husband was watching him light a cigarette while he talked to the American financier, John Jacob Astor.  According to May, the hand that held the match never trembled as she watched his face in its light for the last time.

The photo, showing Futrelle aboard the Titanic, is the last photo taken of the author.  Despite being the master of the impossible escape story, Futrelle could not devise a plan for his own escape.  His body was never recovered, and his unpublished manuscripts went down with the ship.

May Futrelle, an author in her own right, republished as many of her husband's stories as she could--she had to, as the publisher sued her for the return of the advance money for the book that was lost.  Sadly, within a decade, the Thinking Machine stories, and their author, were all but forgotten.


  1. Greatly enjoyed your blog post, even though the phrase "geriatric, matronly women" did hit home a little too closely! I too love mysteries, especially the ones with more puzzles and less gore. Have you been to one of the new escape room experiences? They are puzzles brought to life. Thanks for recommending Ngaio Marsh to me in the past! I'm teaching a class on "Mystery Writers of the 20's and 30's" this spring. Happy Reading!

  2. Me? I got hooked on sci-fi when I found Lester del Rey's "Step to the Stars" in our tiny school library. I became a member of the Science Fiction Book Club when I started my paper route and got two books a month for $3 and built a small sci-fi library. One of the first writers I grew to really like was Poul Anderson who wrote a series that was something of a sci-fi mystery series. It was about a crusty old Dutch space merchant named Nicholas Van Rinjh, a porcine capitalist and captain of industry who makes his living on the fringes of civilization. The books and stories about Van Rinjh would make a terrific television series. He tends to come up against all sorts of problems that require him to solve some sort of mystery to save his own neck and make everybody a little money in the process. Hopefully some smart cable channel will pick up an option on Van Rinjh from Anderson's widow. Maybe they could also do Anderson's Time Patrol too or his Boat of a Million Years about immortal humans living through history. Books are such lovely companions, especially when you are a skinny nerdy kid going to school with thugs, bullies and future death row inmates like I did.

    Ah well, back to work! May dig old Van Rinjh out later, though.